In this last section, Ehrenreich evaluates her performance as a low-wage employee and her success at obtaining food and shelter. Overall, she thinks she did well as a worker and insists that no job is truly “unskilled.” She gives herself a B or B+. When she turns to the discussion of food and housing, Ehrenreich notes that the poor cannot compete with the rich on the housing market. While food is relatively inflation-proof, the cost of housing has sky-rocketed. Meanwhile, wages have not increased based on demand—at least not in a way that adequately accommodates life’s basic necessities.
Ehrenreich notes that there are vital problems with the way government determines who is in poverty as well as the way in which the public sector aids these people. Ehrenreich argues that the laws of economics do not always apply to low-wage workers because they often are restricted geographically, are fraught with the anxiety of entering a new job environment, and do not have ample information available to them.
Ehrenreich considers why low-wage employees do not stick up for themselves, and can only offer observations. In her experiences she noticed workers were kept in line by the power of management, the requirement for employees to surrender their self-respect, as well as a variety of methods designed to directly control employees. Ehrenreich states that The Economic Policy Institute deemed that a “living wage” for a parent and two children is $30,000 and year, or $14 an hour. This is a bare-bones estimate, which does not allow the family money for entertainment or even nutritionally-balanced meals. However, Ehrenreich notes that many employees are making well below this hourly rate; many companies are not able to pay more.
Ehrenreich notes that politicians do very little about the conditions of low-wage workers because Democrats do not want to find flaws in a period of prosperity and Republicans are glad to be rid of “welfare-as-we-know-it.” Ehrenreich points out that we actually know very little about what has happened to former welfare-recipients since 1996 because welfare reform legislation failed to establish a way to monitor people’s post-welfare conditions. Ehrenreich says that poverty is hard to grasp since it is typically associated with unemployment; thus, when employment is up people assume poverty is down. However, if one reads the newspapers, even in a time of high employment, there is evidence of poverty in articles that discuss shortages in food banks (despite a high-level of donations), or overcrowded shelters.
Ehrenreich ends by saying that she believes someday low-wage workers will tire of their lifestyles. They will demand higher wages; they will strike.
Notes - In this final chapter, Ehrenreich provides an overall analysis of her project and draws together the observations she has made throughout the book. Essentially, she finds she did a good job, but that the low-wage lifestyle is unfair and impractical. She is convinced that low-wage workers will not put up with these conditions for much longer.
This chapter was written before the period of economic prosperity in the 1990s came to an end. Ehrenreich notes that Democrats did not want to discuss welfare because they did not want to find flaws in the economic bliss they took credit for creating. However, she fails to note that Democrats and Republicans are strangely tied together in the history of welfare. Welfare was instituted by the Nixon administration, which was Republican. The Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 (the source of this welfare reform) was signed into law by a Democratic president (Clinton) and the phrase she quotes and associated with the Republicans (“welfare-as-we-know-it”) was most-famously stated by Clinton in a State of the Union Address. Interestingly, in the 2004 election the concept of a “living wage” became a central issue.
Ehrenreich does a great job of showing the necessity of reforming low-wage employment and that single mothers would have a very difficult time raising children on the wages available to them. However, Ehrenreich’s arguments might be more convincing if she did a more thorough job of addressing the benefits (and drawbacks) of the Earned Income Tax Credit, if she considered what five years of welfare assistance would mean in a low-wage household as well as how social programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) may (or may not) help with the burden of raising children.